Growing a wildflower meadow creates a vibrant feeding and nesting ground for small animals, birds and insects. Our gardens and the British countryside were once full of wild flowers and flowering plants supporting various wildlife, but in the last hundred years, the country has lost a lot of these areas. However, you can create something similar in your own garden and provide a little slice of paradise for butterflies, bees and birds.
Get on some country clothing and head outdoors for this project, following our guide to help you start making your meadow.
What is a wildflower meadow?
A wildflower meadow is an area of permanent grass where wildflowers grow – not a bed of cornfield annuals like poppies. It is important to make the distinction, as wildflower meadows grow better on unproductive soil, where grasses are not competing with the flowers. The best time to start creating your meadow is autumn, but spring is an important time to help it flourish.
Choose a suitable area
Finding the best spot is important; it needs to be open and sunny but can be flat or sloping. A relatively large area is best. You can use some of your lawn, or turn an old flower border into your designated wildflower meadow.
Reduce the fertility
While this may seem like a strange thing to do in your garden, your soil is likely to be too rich for a meadow if it has had lots of fertiliser added to it over the years. The best way to reduce fertility is removing the top few inches, up to about six inches of topsoil using a turf cutter or spade. If you don’t want to strip the soil, sow a crop of mustard plants in the first year. These are notoriously hungry and will remove some of the nutrients as they grow.
Dig the soil and get rid of weeds
Now comes the hard work! You want to create a fine tilth – soil that looks like breadcrumbs – for seed sowing, similar to a lawn. Once you have bare soil, you can lay black plastic over it, so any weeds in the soil germinate and die. You can use organic chemicals at this point if you are facing some difficult weeds.
Choose your wildflower cocktail
These can be any you want or like the look of, but a good mixture includes:
- Birds-foot trefoil
- Common sorrel
- Field scabious
- Hoary plantain
- Greater and common knapweed
- Lady’s bedstraw
- Meadow buttercup
- Ox-eye daisy
- Red clover
- Ribwort plantain
- Wild carrot
- Grasses such as bents, fescues and crested dogstail
The magic ingredient is yellow rattle. This annual flower has a special ability to reduce the force of grasses – a plant which can grow just about anywhere in the world.
Sowing the seeds
Now comes the fun bit, and as mentioned earlier, it is best carried out in autumn. You need around five grams of seed per square metre of meadow. Because the sowing is thin, it is a good idea to mix the seed with dry silver sand. The pale coloured sand helps you see the areas sown and any missed spots. The correct ratio is about three to five parts sand to one part seeds. Scatter the seed as you walk across the ground, trying to get as even coverage as possible. Split the seeds into batches, sowing in one direction, then at 90 degrees the other way. There is no need to rake the seed in or cover with soil but gently walk across it, so seeds are in contact with the soil. You may also need to use a net to keep away birds. Keep the area well watered until it has started to establish.
In the first growing season, cut the growth in midsummer and remove the deadheads. In following seasons, the best method for managing a meadow is to not mow from April to August, or even September. It is also best to vary the time you cut the deadheads every year or some plants will dominate. Cut the hay in dry weather, using shears as it will be too high for a mower. Leave it on the ground for the seeds to drop for about a week then clear it away for compost. Mow the meadow in the autumn and once in early spring, when you can also do some weeding.
The meadow will evolve year after year
Some species will come through strong in the first year, others in the next. You should see bees and butterflies begin to use your meadow; grasshoppers too if you are lucky. Birds will feed there, and your wildflower meadow will become a thriving part of the garden. You may even get a few small animals in your garden within two or three years!